Social Media, Social Process and the Content Delivery Dilemma
In this article I want to talk about something that is not just limited to the wine industry, but that will become an important factor for all businesses engaged in social media. This is: how are we to effectively engage in a technology that’s visibility is beginning to exceed its maturity. How are we to see through the morass of information to understand the underlying phenomenon that we are dealing with. And, most importantly, how can we predict what all of this new technology will mean in the future.
A common analogy to describe the creation and adoption of new technologies is known as the “hype cycle”, developed by the Garner Group. It looks something like this:
One of the big critiques of this model is that it hypothesizes a static cause-effect relationship between the creation of technology and its adoption. There are many examples, such as fuel cells, of technology that has never been adopted into the mainstream. Jim Bullock at the 2003 Aye Conference hypothesized that technology adoption actually derives from the confluence of two vectors: 1. the social process, and 2. the delivery process. The social process is about people and their expectations whereas the delivery process is about the availability of the technology itself. Most technologies rely on other technologies to be successful, just as, for instance, social media relies not just on computing, but also on portable computing and, increasingly, smart phones.
The dilemma I want to talk about in this article relates to the first vector of technology adoption hypothesized by Mr. Bullock: the social process. This relies on a few presuppositions.
Firstly, these days it is cheap to get content to people. The costs of entry are minimal with electronic publishing, whether in a blog, via twitter, facebook or other social media services, being mostly free. Second, there are two basic kinds of social networks: open networks and closed networks. Open networks do not limit access by filtering individuals based on specific interests or commonalities. Twitter is the de facto example of an open network. Closed networks limit access by focusing on commonalities or interest. Facebook is the most important example of this, but also consider social media sites that focus on wine, like Cork’d, which are explicitly designed to facilitate dialogue amongst a select group of people.
Here’s my thesis: the differentiation between content delivery in open and closed networks is about the social process. Closed networks provide a clear set of tools that guide user’s expectations, and provide them with an easily digestible means to connect and share content. No one is confused about the purpose of Facebook: upon signing up the website asks you to enter your email address to find your friends.
Open networks, on the other hand, provide a limited set of tools to guide the user. Twitter does not build in expectations into its functionality, but instead relies on the user to figure out how to use it and how to interact with others. Twitter requires a more sustained effort to understand than a service like Facebook, which is why so many businesses fail to utilize twitter effectively.
Now, when considering the differing social expectations created by Facebook and Twitter one can notice the fundamental impact these expectations have on the nature of content delivery in these two networks. Facebook, while setting expectations firmly and clearly, limits the diversity of its content delivery to what people expect to read and hear from their friends. Hence, advertising on Facebook is of the traditional non-interactive sort. Intrusive advertising, no matter how well targeted it is, is a necessary consequence of Facebook’s closed nature. People put up with this advertising because the Facebook network has reached such a critical mass that, to put it in economic terms, the costs of not participating are far higher for most people than the costs of viewing intrusive advertising.
Twitter does not operate this way. Because expectations are diffuse and unclear, twitter effectively has no rules for managing content delivery. Even if, over time, we begin to see Twitter using intrusive advertising, this is not the real future of content delivery on open networks. Instead, open networks such as Twitter’s true power is in allowing more diffuse and less intrusive content delivery for businesses. Twitter’s weakness is in scoping and channeling content into easily understandable chunks and in providing guidance for its users.
Thus, if we return to the “hype curve” above, it is only possible to understand social media’s place on this curve if we divide it into social process and delivery process. Right now, the delivery process is peaking, and, may in fact actually be maturing. As newspapers die, content becomes easier and easier to produce to such an extent that almost everyone knows how to and does produce content online, thus making the delivery process nearly ubiquitous.
On the other hand, the social process has yet to mature as fully as the delivery process. Social and personal expectations about social media are not cohesive. Additionally, the delivery processes have fragmented the social processes to such an extent that many Facebook users simply don’t understand or don’t find a use for services such as Twitter and many Twitter junkies are tired and bored of Facebook and its limitations.
If the “hype curve” is at all accurate in relation to social media, then it is only accurate if we increase the number of data points and the number of axes on which to plot the development of the technology. Thus, social media is not just about visibility and maturity; it is also about social expectations, the lost third axis. By plotting along these three axes we can get a better image of the future of social media.
My first thesis that the differentiation between content delivery in open and closed networks is about the social process leads me to the prediction that the future of social media will merge the guidance element of closed networks with the diffusion element of open networks. I believe that Foursquare is an early attempt to achieve this combination of factors, but that its interactive capabilities need to be enhanced.
Thus, the content delivery dilemma in social media is not about the cost of delivery any more. Rather, the dilemma is about the method of delivery. Content is so easy and cheap to produce that users need interfaces that guide them through the sheer volume of material and provide them with guideposts on not just how to manage content, but, more importantly, how to produce it.
A mature understanding of the social process that underlies the development of social media will allow a visionary firm to go beyond traditional monetization and intrusive advertising. In the future, the most successful networks will figure out how to leverage word of mouth marketing within a model of content guidance and signposting within an open network. This will allow for word of mouth marketing to become more important and more targeted than traditional marketing. It will also converge the benefits of visibility with the benefits of social expectations. It is only then that social media will reach the first stages of its maturity.
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